Document is a BBC Radio 4 series that attempts to shed light on murkier aspects of history, that have either been forgotten or covered up.
Using recently discovered documents, previous series have brought to light many interesting historical documents. These have included such nuggets as the plan by Tom Wintringham and other socialists associated with the newly formed Home Guard to turn their weapons on any quisling type government that attempted to come to a Vichy type arrangement with Nazi Germany.
Last Monday’s episode (21 March) covered the British government’s attempt to overthrow the new Russian revolutionary workers’ state in 1918.
From 1918, first the Soviet government under Lenin and then the Stalinist regime accused Britain of organising a plot to kill Lenin and overthrow the Soviet government. Successive British governments have denied involvement in the assassination and coup attempt. However, from the 1950s there has been some partial admission of limited British involvement through the “renegade” MI6 agent Sidney Reilly. Recently Robert Service, the establishment’s expert on the Russian Revolution, has found new evidence that confirms Britain’s close involvement in an attempted assassination of Lenin and counter-revolution.
The Soviet government formed after the Russian Revolution of November 1917 was, in the main, made up of Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, but also included the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).
In 1918, with the country in ruins, with the Imperial German army advancing into the Ukraine and the East, the new Soviet government reluctantly signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany.
The new treaty ended Russia’s involvement in World War One and, the Bolsheviks hoped, would give the new Soviet government some breathing space. However, the SRs opposed the Treaty and broke with the Bolshevik-led government.
Britain and France, now faced with the full undivided attentions of the German army, looked to overthrow the Soviet government.
Bruce Lockhart, the British government’s representative in Soviet Russia, and the MI6 agent, the sometime arms dealer Sidney Reilly (born Georgi Rosenblum), began financing opposition groups, including those around Boris Savinkov of the SRs, and making links with apparently disaffected officers of the nascent Red Army, especially those around a Latvian Division.
Using the divisions within the Soviet government over Brest-Litovsk, they hoped to overthrow the Soviet government and bring to power a government prepared to bring Russia back into the war. The middle of 1918 saw a series of events that were key to what was the start of the bloodiest period of civil war.
May saw the Czech Legion (exiled Czech soldiers who wished to carry on the war against Germany) seize large stretches of Siberia. In July, Left SRs assassinated the German ambassador in Moscow hoping to start a popular uprising against Bolshevik rule. Fighting now broke out across Soviet Russia. In August 1918 Fanny Kaplan, who had been a member of the now banned SRs, attempted to kill Lenin. Lenin was left fighting for his life.
Within hours of Kaplan’s assassination attempt, Lockhart was arrested. In his lurid memoir, published in the 1930s, he recounted how he was able to dispose of his list of paid oppositionists as toilet paper before the Cheka (Soviet secret police) could discover any of the information. Sidney Reilly was able to escape capture until 1925 when he was lured to his death in a Cheka trap, as was Boris Savinkov.
Bruce Lockhart, later exchanged for a Soviet representative, on his return distanced himself from the assassination attempts and limited his admissions to paid subversion. Sidney Reilly was fingered as exceeding his brief, if not going renegade.
The documents found by Robert Service now confirm what had been obvious to the left for many years, that Britain had decided on an active campaign to overthrow the Soviet government. In May 1918, under the pretence of preventing arms stored at Archangel falling into German hands, 5,000 British troops were landed. Documents now reveal that their main role was to link up with opposition forces and turn over the supplies.
Documents also reveal that in June 1918 Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s coalition government, asked that the money urgently requested by Bruce Lockhart be supplied and that Boris Savinkov’s plan of assassination and counter-revolution be supported.
Right-wing commentators have often pointed to the reaction of the Bolsheviks to these events as the “Red Terror”. These documents show that the nascent workers’ state faced a campaign of assassination and armed uprising, paid for in part by the Lloyd George government. While in retrospect, it is obvious that the Bolshevik campaign of self-defence made many mistakes, the alternative of doing nothing would have led to the collapse of Soviet power.
Robert Service has also recently discovered a document of Bruce Lockhart’s son confirming his father’s involvement in the events, and that Sidney Reilly was not renegade but working as part of a government operation to overthrow the Bolsheviks.
Nearly 100 years later, many of the documents that would tell the full story of British intervention in the Russian Revolution are still secret. The recent discoveries have been found in US archives or by accident. Robert Service’s view is that successive British governments liked the cosy myth that Lockhart’s assassination and subversion plots could never be carried out by British governments.
Of course British establishment “fair play” is just a myth, as Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and others have found out to their cost.